Josiah Royce Jr.: The famous Grass Valley native you didn’t know |

Josiah Royce Jr.: The famous Grass Valley native you didn’t know

Tom Durkin
Special to Prospector

Hardly anybody in Grass Valley knows that native son Josiah Royce Jr. (1855-1916) was one of the preeminent historians and philosophers of his time – but that is going to change this weekend.

The Josiah Royce Society (, an international academic organization dedicated to the study of Royce's life and humanist philosophy, will host its "Royce, California, and the World" conference Friday through Sunday at the historic Holbrooke Hotel.

The symposium is for serious scholars from universities across North America. However, a number of activities are planned in conjunction with the conference to educate and entertain the local community about the Harvard scholar's formative years in a rough Gold Rush mining town.

Nevada City producer/playwright Robin Wallace has teamed up with Nevada City director/actor Dinah Smith to debut two "staged readings" of "Beyond Our Mountains" in the Arletta Douglas Room (main dining room) of the Holbrooke.

Furthermore, the conference will feature the first-ever publication of Royce's first book, "Pussy Blackie's Travels." It's a children's story — written by a child. While hardly a scholarly work, this book is remarkable in that Royce wrote it when he was only 8 or 9 years old. It gives invaluable insight into the moral and intellectual development of a young genius.

Additionally, several talks and social events will allow local resident to mingle with experts on Royce's controversial history of California and his still relevant philosophical works.

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Playwright's research discovers gold

While working as a visiting nurse some years ago, Wallace first learned about Royce from a patient who lived on what was once the Royce family's farm. That inspired Wallace to think about maybe writing a play about Royce someday.

When Wallace learned the Royce Society was coming to town, she realized it was time to get serious about her research and write the play.

Wallace struck unexpected gold in her research. Dr. Matthew Foust of Lander University, South Carolina, sent her what historians believe is a typewritten copy of a story Josiah wrote in Grass Valley during the Civil War. The original, handwritten version is long lost.

Wallace and fellow local organizer Iven Lourie quickly realized that publishing "Pussy Blackie's Travels" would be the perfect complement to the conference.

Randall Auxier, professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, agreed. The author of several books and many articles on Royce, Prof. Auxier wrote the foreword and afterword to the book. Although he writes to an audience of young readers, Auxier adheres to the strict academic standards of historical proof to which his peers will hold him.

Wallace and Lourie underwrote the cost of printing the $20 book, but Wallace emphasized everybody who worked on the book was a volunteer.

This reflects Royce's philosophical emphasis on community, she said.

The book was professionally designed by Katy Hight Design of Nevada City and slickly published by Artemis Books of Penn Valley.

What seems to be gaining the most attention, however, are the subdued, stylized illustrations (also on the Prospector cover) by Grass Valley artist Brenna Young, who just graduated from high school last year.

Wallace was effusive in her praise for Young's work: "You don't learn this in art school. You just have it or you don't."

Both Auxier and Young will be signing the book at a Saturday reading at Booktown Books in Grass Valley.

"Beyond Our Mountains" – a staged reading

"The play is a hybrid," said director Smith. "We're not doing it with music stands and everyone just standing there reading the play."

Instead, the actors – three of them pre-teens – will mostly read from their scripts at a table. Smith has, however, staged some "minimal" blocking, and there will be a few props.

Since the play features Josiah and his three older sisters as children, Smith reported she handpicked the child actors from youngsters she's taught or worked with before.

"The kids are such amazing sponges. They have a lot of their lines already memorized, but I'm still making them hold their scripts," Smith said.

Both Smith and Wallace singled out 10-year-old Orion Molaro, who plays young Josiah.

"He is so similar in temperament and genius to Josiah that it's almost scary," said Smith.

During rehearsals, "he never thinks about what he's going to say, always has a quick smart remark, and he's constantly interrupting and making us laugh," she added.

Another key player is Marion Jeffery, said Wallace. Jeffery plays Sarah Royce, the deeply religious and moral schoolteacher-mother who held the family together during her husband's years-long absences away on business.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at

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